[DisclaimerThe only people I’ve met here from the UK who aren’t struggling a lot with speaking and understanding the language, are the ones whose parents have a holiday home in France or who have been going skiing in the Alps twice a year since they were two. Languages is a very elitist course sometimes so if you’re a working-class student who hasn’t had the opportunity to travel to these places, you have to work much harder. If you’re one of the elite ones, you won’t relate to my experience.] 

When I first arrived and I had to start conducting my life in French, I quickly realised it was going to be much harder than I thought. First of all, I couldn’t remember how to ask questions or a lot of really basic vocabulary. Then every conversation I had with someone was just a case of half-understanding the other person and stammering and stuttering my response.  

Before you go abroad, your university will make sure you’re in a good head space before allowing you to do it and I see why. It can be incredibly disheartening to get good marks at uni and believe you’re at a high level of French and then arrive in France and realise how far you’ve got to go. University almost lures you into a false sense of security about your language level.

I’ve been here for five weeks and right now, I’m having the time of my life. However, it wasn’t so fun at the start. Everyone says the first two weeks are the hardest and I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve decided to write about this experience sooner rather than later as the further into the time I get, the more likely I am to look back on the first couple of weeks with rose-tinted glasses.

I think every languages student at the end of the second year thinks to themselves “I’m gonna be really good this summer and spend X hours a week learning French”. This, of course, never happens. So you arrive in a new place, your language skills rusty and your ear not tuned in at all. Your most important encounters happen in this rusty-French time too: finding a place to live, opening a bank account, registering at your school/uni/workplace etc.  I spent quite a lot of my first two weeks feeling quite down about my French, particularly when I was sitting in lectures that may as well have been taught in Klingon for all I understood of them. Another knock was when I was trying to enrol on a course with a secretary who deliberately spoke quicker and quicker each time I asked her to slow down or repeat something. I was down about the fact that I’d been learning French for years and still was struggling.

This is where the good head space comes in. When you’ve had this huge knock to your confidence, it can be tempting to give up and isolate yourself but you need to refocus and remind yourself why you’re there. Identify elements of perfectionism in yourself and remember that it’s unrealistic to expect to speak like a native straight away.

On the bright side, it’s slightly easier to be a Brit because no one really expects us to know a second language. It’s almost like you can say a sentence where you completely mess up all of the grammar and pronunciation but everyone will still be amazed. Some people may see this as a bad thing but I’m using it to my advantage.

Every single person who has learnt a foreign language has been through this. The initial few months of feeling silly and making mistakes are just a necessary part of the process. The best way to learn is to be thrown in at the deep end, otherwise, a year abroad wouldn’t be a necessary component of your course.

When you’re on your abroad and finding using the language difficult, remember that it won’t be like this the entire time you’re there. You will improve quickly unless you isolate yourself or attach yourself to a group of English speakers out of comfort.

My French has improved dramatically since I’ve been here. The next edition of this column will explain what I’ve been up to in the quest to become a fluent French speaker in four months.

Top tips-  

  • Don’t put off talking to people in French- yes it can go horribly wrong but it’s always a good learning experience.
  • When things are going wrong, don’t give up.
  • Don’t hold yourself to unrealistic expectations or compare yourself to other students.